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Month: January 2018

The Over Under

The Over Under

I tried something new with kindergarten students last week. They are kicking off their next unit on man-made versus natural materials. Last year we started by sorting a variety of actual objects in small groups. This was followed by a cut and paste activity of pictures glued to a t-chart. This year, I decided to make use of the digital tools available to the students.

We started by talking more about the word ‘man-made’ and that in this case man referred to human. Made meant something built or created. We took a look at variety of man-made objects from their classroom and looked for commonalities. We decided man-made things (in general) were smooth, had an identifiable shape, did a job and were frequently bright colors.

Students then were given an iPad, reminded how to use the camera, what makes a good picture and asked to take four pictures of man-made things in their classroom. When they were done, students returned to the rug with their iPad. We then walked through together how to use PicKids to create a collage of the four pictures they took, save the picture to the camera roll, log-in to SeeSaw, upload their collage and type a label for their image. If it sounds like a lot of steps, it is. If it sounds a bit exhausting it was. But, they did it.

Later that day I got to revisit the same classroom. This time we looked at examples of nature. Now it’s January in Minnesota so it creates a bit of unique setting.  Some generalizations were observed that are true only for this time of year. Our characteristics of nature items included: odd shaped, dull colors (in winter), more bumpy parts and doesn’t have a job (in the same way that man-made things do). There are definitely exceptions to all of these properties and we talked about many of them in-depth.

Students were once again given an iPad and brought outside to take four pictures of nature things they could find. (This also led to an interesting conversation about why iPads don’t work with mittens on.) Once we were back inside, it was time to make another collage. This time though, I asked kids what to do for each step. We got done in less than half of the time. If I had to guess, I’d say close to 90% of the kids remembered 90% of the steps. It was pretty amazing to watch. It was also pretty great to see their confidence and joy and being able to do this.

This got me thinking about the idea of how to estimate as a teacher the just right amount of tension to add to a lesson. Not enough tension (underestimating skills and abilities) can lead to disengagement.  This manifests itself in a number of ways: misuse of equipment and distracting behavior, among others. For primary students the tap, tap tap on your arm: “I’m done, now what?” But what happens when you create too much tension by overestimating the skills and abilities? Sometimes, I see the same disengaging behavior with a dash of frustration to top it off. The tap, tap tap is still there but now it’s ‘how do I do this?’ and you look up and half the class has surrounded you with the same question – a good sign I missed the boat on this one.

I have to say, there has been many a lesson since switching from middle school science to elementary teaching that were a bit of a flop due to overestimating. Reflecting on these lessons though, I think I grew more as a teacher during the times I overestimated a lesson. I still learned from the underestimated lessons, but it didn’t have the immediacy. Maybe the same idea of tension applies to me as a teacher. When I have to figure out how to reign in my instruction, restructure directions, materials, products or processes I am forced to think deeply about my goals and intended outcomes.

After eleven years, I’m getting closer to figuring out the secret recipe of just-right. But the more I do this job, the more I realize I thrive on the stress and tension of creatively finding a new way for students to learn content and concepts, to demonstrate and share their knowledge and understanding, to communicate their findings and collaborate with others. I guess if I had to pick one, I’d go with the over every time.

When Everything Falls Into Place

When Everything Falls Into Place

Daily, I walk by a rack of snowshoes that our school got through a Donors Choose project. Up until now one factor or another was just not right: my schedule was open but we didn’t have enough snow, the snow came but then it dropped below zero, then snow melted, my schedule was too full. But last week, enough things fell into the place to let me take three classes out snowshoeing.

There are definitely challenges to getting a whole class of kids strapped in and ready to go. Even fourth graders struggled with the straps, keeping the snowshoes on and tripping over themselves. Despite the frustrations, kids persevered. The first class, in particular, got to observe a number of tracks giving us clues about what animal friends use our schoolyard too and led to some great questions: where do you think they are going, where did they come from, where do you think they live, what do you think they are eating? Kids were also inspired to create their own tracks using their hands, fingers and mittens to try to convince me there was a bear in the woods.

We took a break on a field after awhile and kids had free time to relax and explore. Some kids used some pine branches they found to ‘paint’ the snow, some kids took time to just relax and simply laid down in the snow, others used their feet to create patterns and designs. I enjoyed seeing the variety of ways students used this time. I was also inspired to take this moment of free time to soak in the joy I was witnessing. This break was not a planned part of our walk, but rather just happened as some kids had finished the trail early and we were waiting for other to catch up. Students had begun finding their own way to fill the time naturally, without asking permission. Once the last kids had caught up to us, most kids were already engaged in something. The classroom teacher and I stood next to each other and took in the scene. The idea of giving suggestions to kids came up and we both realized how foolish it would be to interrupt them, and I was reminded of the phrase: ‘Let sleeping babies lie’. So the kids explored, tested, played and interacted, and it was great.

Reflecting on this week, I’ve had a series of thoughts about this experience. One, a number of kids got their first experience snowshoeing. We have a number of students who are new to Minnesota and new to snow. A drastic change in climate can sometimes lead to uncertainty of what’s possible. I’m also a believer that you have to find something to do in winter in Minnesota, for your mental and physical health. Not every family will snowshoe after this experience, but at least this group of kids knows what it’s like now and knows that they can do it.

Two, having time to join this class reminded me again that I am grateful for making some curriculum changes this year. Taking this year to shift some projects and try new things has meant planning projects in more of the immediate timeline rather than being planned out months at a time. A side effect of this meant that when snow came and the weather was warm that I had time available to join in an opportunity when it came up.

Three, it was a good reminder what a great experience it is having time to breathe both for kids and adults. So much of the day is driven by time: 50 minutes and now math is done, quick wash hands and line up for lunch. Not always, but sometimes it feels like the clock can be such a dictator, determining tasks whether kids brains are ready to change gears or not. So when an opportunity arises that lets kids breathe, relax and enjoy the moment, it feels pretty good.

How Might We Use a Tree?

How Might We Use a Tree?

This summer, our school was awarded a grant from the Tree Trust organization to plant 25 trees on our property. In December, I found myself in a meeting with the tree trust liaison, our building principal and magnet TOSA. A map of our school yard was pulled out and discussion turned to where trees might go and what trees we could pick. It became overwhelming to me for a few reasons. First, the possibilities made my head swim. We have quite a large schoolyard and there were so many choices: birches in the lower field? Oak in the new clearing? White pine to border the upper field? The idea of more shade for the playground got brought up as well. I think it was this turn in the conversation that made me decide we needed to pause. The tree trust organization suggests creating a student green team to help be in charge of some of this process. But, I saw a bigger opportunity to involve more students and use some principles of design thinking. I spent the rest of December coming up with a plan for how to frame this idea and finally got a chance to try it out last week.

I’ve become interested in storytelling as a creative tool for teaching, and have found this is a technique that works for me. So I kicked off this three day project by telling the students of the story so far. This engaged the students in the content and process and connected with them at an emotional level. After brainstorming as class ways trees could be used to create or change our landscape, I shared some of the thoughts I had about how the trees might be used to both confirm their suggestions and introduce new ideas if they hadn’t been brought up. You can see my presentation here: Next, we started getting into specifics. I shared a slideshow with students via SeeSaw of tree choices. I explained that these trees were chosen based on the school forest plan generated for our school by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as part of our school forest plan. As students swiped through the slideshow, they made a chart in their science notebooks for Tree, Number and Why. Students had to consider the possibilities that trees can create that we discussed (shade, science, art, habitat, privacy and peace). We also looked broadly at  locations. We discussed constraints of placement, including athletics fields, new construction, current use of spaces and landscape features like hills and current gardens.

The next day, we did a tour of our school grounds. This allowed students to see the spaces they were considering in real life, how close locations were to existing structures like buildings, sidewalks and other trees. This also got us a chance to really look a the space, review who currently uses each space and for what reason. We also got to talk about how trees could change the use of that space and therefore also change who might use it. This also gave us a chance to talk about how there really isn’t a spot where all 25 trees could fit together. Instead, we’ll have to break the number into smaller groups. We also talked about how it’s possible to meet the needs of more than one category at a time. For example, a group of birch could be chosen for artistic reasons, but the placement decision could lead also to shade and habitat.

With the few minutes left of class, I introduced Google Earth to classes. Students learned how to use the search tool to put in our school’s name, how to change from 2D to 3D view and how to zoom in and navigate the scene. This was the first time using this app for many students, which I hadn’t considered ahead of time. It’s a fascinating tool for kids and leads to so many questions and inspires so much curiosity. In hindsight, I wish I had thought through the novelty of this more and allowed time for students to explore and discover before focusing on tasks.

On the last day, all of the individual pieces came together to their final proposal. Students started by logging into see saw. Leaving that app open, they then navigated to Google Earth, found our school and a specific location on the grounds that they wanted to propose for tree planting. Using the camera tool on the left navigation bar of the Google earth, they took a snapshot of the location. Taking a snapshot brings up a menu of choices for how to use the picture, SeeSaw is one of the options. When SeeSaw is selected, students begin by confirming it’s them. Initially, the snapshot doesn’t show in the feed view, but taping their name on their folder refreshes the screen to make it appear. Tapping the three dots on the picture allows students to edit the image. We used the draw tool to draw in the number of trees they wanted in that spot. The text tool allowed students to document what type of tree they wanted and why they chose that species of tree. This process was repeated until they had their 25 trees documented.

I really wasn’t sure how these three days of instruction were going to play out. I didn’t know if kids would be engaged in this process, if it was too much or too little to ask of them, I wasn’t completely sure how best to have kids document their ideas and final proposals and yet it all came together quite swimmingly if I say so myself.

This project started as a loose idea during a meeting. Sitting in an office, surrounded by adults making decisions about our schoolyard just felt so wrong. Reflecting on my thinking process in designing these three days of instruction, I really give a lot of credit back to the Teachers Guild. The training I went through this summer and the ongoing meetings this school year has really started putting design thinking into my thought patterns. This project is also a perfect example of what can happen when you are willing to let go. If I had kept doing all the same lessons I had been doing year after year, I would have never had time to try this. There continue to be sticking points around changing my role and lessons, but the fact that I was able to embrace this moment as it arose and turn it into a learning opportunity for kids feels pretty good.

I feel pretty proud of how this all turned out. I am excited to have engaged so many students around how we can use trees. I was overjoyed to have another reason to get kids outside for some meaningful observations and discussions. I was thrilled to see how technology really became a necessary component to help students share their thoughts and ideas. As a bonus side-effect, because plans were shared via SeeSaw, parents are now chiming in on plans too, commenting on tree choice and locations.

In another week, I’ll be in another meeting with the same adults. But this time, I’ll be able to come armed with pages of ideas that are authentically from our community. We won’t be able to use everyone’s plans in the final decision, but I think knowing that they got to be a part of the process was a big step.  I also think there will be many portions of plans that will be used. I look forward to students being able to point to a new tree and think ‘that’s where I said that should go’ and feel that much more connected to our school yard and a part of nature.

When You Least Expect It

When You Least Expect It

This week I’m taking a diversion from my nature lessons to write about a technology project I worked on. This last week I got to witness the culmination of a project that had been stewing in my brain since July. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse Project, based on the book with the same name by Kevin Henkes. This is an author studied by the second grade team at my school. I had a vision of making this book a reality. In the story, Lilly got a purse from her grandma that plays a song when the purse is open. In her excitement to share, she loses patience while waiting for sharing time, opens the purse and gets it taken away from her.

Over the summer, I ordered a Microbit, bought a singing birthday card and set about experimenting. I also had some help from some staff at Tufts university Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. A mutual friend connected me with Jessica who gave me the card suggestion and helped figure out the song component. In addition, this project connected nicely with the Novel Engineering project work that Tufts is developing:

After dissecting the card, I figured out how to connect the speaker to the Microbit and Ta Da: Music! Once school started, I shared my vision with a fourth grade teacher, a second grade teacher and our art specialist. The art specialist found plans to have students make a duct tape wallet version of the purple plastic purse, with purple duct tape. Step one: Purple Plastic Purses: check.

I shared the Microbit at a district tech specialist meeting. Many other teachers were interested in this device as well. I connected with our district level coordinator, who was willing to buy a class set of  Microbits that are now available for check-out across the district. Step two: Programmable Devices: check

Now that all of the separate parts were in place, it was time to put them together. I spent a day helping fourth graders learn how to code the Microbit and download their program to their device. I don’t have a ton of coding experience, but I understand the basics. I think more importantly,  I have quite a bit of persistence. I don’t like it when things don’t work and will, at times, become obsessed on problems and stick with it until I get it worked out. The nice thing about b fourth graders and Microbits, they are both pretty friendly and easy to work with. It did not take very long at all for the classroom to sound like an arcade with songs and bells going off, lights flashing and names scrolling. There is something quite satisfying about making this piece of electronic equipment do what you told it to do.

As a class, we  collaborated on getting the code for how to play a tone based on light level, downloaded the program and mounted the board, battery pack and speaker into the flap of the purse. This way the song would play when the purse is opened. Fourth grade teams were then partnered with a pair of second graders, who had just finished reading the story. Fourth graders shared what they had worked on up to this point, demonstrated what they had created and explained how it worked.

Next, the second grade students brainstormed ideas of what to change about the output of the program so that Lily wouldn’t get into trouble. Ideas included adding a step so the song only plays when it’s pushed, making the lights play instead of a song and trying to change the volume. Fourth grade classes then went back to their class to reprogram their device. I was amazed at the fourth graders ability to get straight to work reprogramming. After really only two lessons with this device nearly all groups knew how to fix their program to make it do what the second grade students had requested. Another amazing thing was some of the suggestions from the second graders. One group suggested they create a thumbprint control so it would only play when she touched it and no one else could make it play. While this particular device did not have that feature available, the second graders know that such technology exists. I would expect in the not too far future a device will be available for fourth graders to program with just such a feature.

We went back to visit the second grade classes the next day. This time, with new, custom coded purses. Demonstrations were shared again. In addition, teams spent time brainstorming how this new purse might change the story. Finally, partner groups shared their new version of the story with the class.

It was an amazing experience to see this vision become a reality. I am grateful to all of my colleagues who were willing to try something new, not knowing how it might turn out. I think I am most excited about what else this might create.

The fourth grade teacher I worked with had told me multiple times before starting that she was not at all comfortable with coding and it was really stepping out of her comfort zone and that she would be relying on me to help with that side of the project. But the day after we finished this project, she partnered with a different fourth grade class and had her students teach the other class how to code and use the Microbits – without me. She also has plans to partner with a different second grade class and re-do the project, now that the purses are already made. She’s hoping to add in a step to have the fourth graders show the second graders how they change the code this time. This might not seem like a lot, but to me this is a huge leap. A big goal of my job, on a nearly daily basis is to do lessons with classroom teachers and their students with the hope that they can see the idea, strategy or device and see a way to make it their own, independent of my help. It’s a long slow road and something I’m continually working. I consider strategies to improve my instruction and communication and support so independence occurs more frequently. But somehow, with this project it happened without me even knowing.

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